Votes to win in the politics of fear

gerhard-hoffstaeder-thumbDr Gerhard Hoffstaedter

First appeared in The Australian on 24th September, 2010.

The recent Swedish elections have confirmed a European trend towards political stalemates or hung parliaments, which is not new to Europe, and towards a resurgence of far-right parties in European parliaments.

Voter disillusionment with the major left and right of centre parties has polarised voters and the Swedish Democrats, running on an anti-immigration platform, are reaping the rewards.

Far-right parties have been on the rise in Belgium, Denmark, The Netherlands, France and now Sweden.

How this phenomenon may be explained is currently being played out in Germany, which is being polarised by a debate over Thilo Sarrazin, until recently a board member of the German federal central bank, and his recent book, Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany is getting rid of itself).

His main thesis is that German immigration policy since the 1960s has been a disaster and Germany must alter its policies to curb immigration, especially of low-skilled and Muslim (Turkish) immigrants. He regards Islam as a problem for integration and his cost-benefit analysis of Muslim immigrants in Europe is negative, meaning that in his view Muslims are a financial strain.

Beyond the financial arguments against Muslim immigrants stand the cultural ones. He wants Germany to remain recognisably where people speak German and where his great-grandchildren can live.

Here the story takes a markedly anti-Muslim twist, for his dystopian vision of Germany in the future is a country "in large parts Muslim", where people in vast parts speak "Turkish and Arabic, women wear a headscarf and daily rhythm is dictated by the call of the muezzins".

Sarrazin's theses may be flawed and even racist, but they also unmask the timid or sheer lack of a robust debate about immigration in Germany. It is precisely the kernel of truth in some of his statements that has struck a chord with many ordinary Germans.

They worry about what they perceive as external threats, such as refugees, and internal threats, such as the Muslim immigrant. These threats mark a challenge to the national narratives of most if not all European countries. They are based on the nation-state as a homogenous ethnic, religious (in broad terms) and civilisational unit, which has been replicated on a European scale. The values remain Judeo-Christian, white and post-enlightenment - values as broad as freedom and as narrow as anti-Muslim. It is the latter that have become a new rallying cry for a range of popular movements, political parties and middle-class resentment. Sarrazin is a symptom of a larger mood.

Far-right parties have again swept into European parliaments or have influenced centre-right parties to adopt their policies in order to attract far-right voters.Conservative are steadily moving into far-right territory to appease the politics of fear they are often generating themselves. The unemployment crisis largely caused by the global financial crisis saw refugees, foreigners and what are perceived as foreign nationals targeted. The Roma are the most recent of these. They do not settle, get a job and pay taxes like the rest of "us", is a common complaint. Their lifestyle does not fit with how the European nations see themselves. France has reacted most forcefully, expelling Roma en masse to Bulgaria.

In Germany the Stammtisch (where regulars meet in pubs and discuss and rant about gossip and current affairs) debates have long focused on Muslims and their otherness and what is seen as a general lack of integration into mainstream German society.

The lightning rods may vary for this debate. In Switzerland it was the minarets, in France and Belgium it is the burka and in Germany it is often the treatment of women in Islam. Switzerland has banned minarets and France the burka in line with the defence of enlightenment values Europeans fought for during the past couple of hundred years.

It is this defence of values that stirs a visceral response from ordinary Europeans. Many have not seen a burka, nor do they care to: it is a matter of principle that must not be challenged and that principle goes to the heart of who we Europeans are.

It is about identity and the increasing sense that we are losing it in the face of a form of multiculturalism and diversity that is not of our making. This helplessness to preserve and contain national, even regional, identities has been capitalised on by the far Right, who project the past as the utopia, before national culture was diluted.

This is one of the arguments in Sarrazin's book. It places others on the outside of "our" nation and makes "them" responsible for whatever ills befall us.

The key question Germans face now is: What sort of nation do we want to live in? It is a matter of projecting a national narrative that is inclusive enough to allow others a say beyond being tolerated and focused enough to allow Germans to identify with key cultural, social and civilisational values. It seems destined to fail.

The 2006 World Cup showed Germany as a cosmopolitan and welcoming society. But inviting the world for a four-week tournament is not the same as creating a multicultural society that is open to changing itself and rewriting its national cultural and religious values in line with its changing demography.

This sort of negotiation takes courage and an open society that is willing to engage with others as equals. Unfortunately, the politics of fear remain too easy an instrument to apply.